The film opens on the interior of a dive bar in California. Ricki (Meryl Streep), a middle-aged woman, is on the stage performing for a crowd of regulars with her band, "The Flash." She reveals she is having a romantic relationship with her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) and the crowd hoots and hollers, particularly the gay bartender. Ricki then announces they are going to attempt a more modern song at the request of some younger patrons, and they perform Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance".
Ricki then gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline). He informs her that their adult daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has had a mental breakdown after being left by her husband and that she needs the presence of her mother. Despite being relatively poor (Ricki, whose real name is Linda, works at a Whole Foods style grocery store called Total Foods,) Ricki scrapes up the money to fly to Indianapolis.
She arrives at the home Pete shares with his current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), who is out of town on business, and marvels at how fancy and clean everything is. She encounters Julie, who is unbathed and disheveled. Julie does not welcome her mother's presence, and we discover that Ricki left the family when Julie was still a child to pursue her dream of being a rock singer. She also left behind sons Joshua and Daniel. The family arranges to have dinner together.
When at the restaurant, none of Ricki's children seem particularly thrilled to see her. Straight-laced Daniel has a new fiance who is prim and proper, and Ricki keeps inadvertently offending her. They make it clear Ricki is not invited to the wedding. Gay Joshua gets upset because despite being a liberal rocker Ricki is clearly not at peace with his orientation, suggesting that he might be dating a woman because in high school he said he was bisexual. She also expresses a variety of conservative views, including a dislike for Obama. None of the tension is helped by Julie, who seems to revel in stoking the animosity around the table.
Ricki is told later that evening that Julie's situation is far worse and that in fact she attempted to commit suicide. Ricki takes her out for breakfast the next morning, causing her to miss a therapy appointment, and confronts her on this issue. She takes Julie out for a makeover and successfully gets her to shower and dress slightly better. Julie and her parents spend time together out on the town, which culminates in a confrontation with Julie's husband, who is out at a bar with the woman he cheated on Julie with. Ricki and Pete go inside and tear the guy a new asshole in front of his friends.
When they all get back home, Ricki finds Pete's pot stash and the trio smoke weed together. Pete finds a box in the basement containing items from his past with Ricki including her one (failed) album release, which they all listen to. Ricki plays a song she wrote for Julie and Pete, and Julie goes upstairs to got to sleep. Ricki and Pete have a brief romantic flirtation that goes just shy of actually cheating.
The next morning Ricki awakens to discover that Pete's wife Maureen has returned home from her business trip. Ricki is very uncomfortable and annoyed at her presence, and everyone feels the tension even though Maureen is being very nice. Maureen notes Ricki is wearing her bathrobe, but tells her she can keep it.
Shortly thereafter, Ricki comes out of the shower to discover Maureen waiting for her in her bedroom. Maureen tells Ricki that she doesn't appreciate her causing Julie to miss therapy or giving her pot. She asks Ricki to go home. The two argue about the past and the fact that Maureen raised the children and Ricki was absent. Ricki says that Pete is still in love with her, to which Maureen very pointedly says "I'm going to let you have that one."
Ricki returns home to her life in Los Angeles and finds that her inability to commit to her boyfriend is causing tension. There are several extended scenes of The Flash performing at the dive bar. Ricki reveals that she lost her brother during his military service, which explains her sometimes conservative viewpoints and unwavering support of the troops.
Ricki receives a letter from Maureen apologizing for the way things were left and inviting her to the wedding. Ricki doesn't want to go because she cannot afford the cost of travel. Greg sells a vintage guitar to pay for their fare, and the two go together. At the wedding, everyone is very cold to Ricki, and despite dressing down to look more conservative she still sticks out like a sore thumb. Pete's elderly mother Oma (Charlotte Rae) tells Ricki that she thinks she is a great wife for Pete, and Ricki realizes she has Alzheimers.
Her children, however, are happy she came, though Daniel's wife is wary of her. She meets Joshua's long time boyfriend and tells them she is happy they found each other. At the reception, Ricki stands up to make a toast. She declares that she loves her children very much but that she couldn't figure out what kind of a gift to give her son for his wedding. She then declares that all she really has is music, and heads to the stage. The reception band exits and the rest of The Flash take the stage, and Ricki sings the married couple a song. Maureen and Pete respond to this warmly, as do her children, but Daniel's wife is reluctantly pulled onto the dance floor for a first dance.
Slowly the younger people move to the floor to dance, though most of the crowd just stared disapprovingly. Ricki doesn't care because for the first time she is able to be herself, be accepted by her family and still be present in their lives. The band continues to play as the credits roll.
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